The secret of the Super Bowl: It’s far easier to score a touchdown in the Big Game than it is for advertisers to do the same in the commercial time that surrounds it.
With the event about to debut its 53rd edition, longtime viewers might just think they can devise a Super Bowl ad as easily as any creative toiling away at one of the nation’s big ad agencies. Sign an A-list or D-list celebrity. Come up with kooky joke or jaw-dropping surprise. Licence bubbly pop song. Figure out a way to get people talking about all of it on social media ten days to two weeks before kickoff. Et voila!
Making a truly memorable Super Bowl ad, as it turns out, means clearing a higher bar. We’ve come here today to celebrate advertisers who have done just that.
What follows below isn’ t a list of the best Super Bowl ads ever made. Curating that roster is a task best delegated to people with ten times our sagacity or acumen.
Instead, it’s a compendium of those big commercials that forced a change in how Super Bowl commercials are plotted, put together or placed in the lineup of the network broadcasting the game. No, we aren’t going to look at Coke’s famous Mean Joe Greene ad or the popular 1973 Super Bowl commercial for Noxzema featuring Farrah Fawcett and Joe Namath. We will focus, however, on those ads that have shaken the Super Bowl system and given us new ways to consider how to build the biggest, most-watched and most-talked-about commercials in the United States. Make sure and let us know if you think we got them all.
Procter & Gamble, “It’s A Tide Ad” (2018)
Anheuser-Busch, “Bud Bowl” (1989 to 1995, 1997)
Appeared In: Super Bowl LII (Tide) and Super Bowl XXIII- Super Bowl XXIX, Super Bowl XXXI (Bud)
What: In P&G’s 2018 four-ad effort, Tide “hijacks” a variety of different commercials that start off as ads for beer, Mr. Clean, Old Spice and other common pitches. In Bud’s multiple-commercial game within a game, bottles of the brewer’s flagship Budweiser take the field against bottles of Bud Light (Bud Ice and Bud Dry would appear as the series wore on) in a stop-motion-animation classic that sometimes seems as furious a contest as the game itself.
Why: Too many advertisers think of Super Bowl commercials as “one-offs.” With some strategic thinking, however, they can create a story line that compels viewers to follow along from first quarter to fourth. Bud’s faux gridiron contest even prompted some people to gamble on its outcome – proof positive that advertisers can use the Super Bowl to craft something much bigger than a couple of 30-second TV commercials.
Netflix, trailer for “The Cloverfield Paradox” (2018)
Appeared In: Super Bowl LII
What: Netflix crashed Super Bowl LII with the surprise announcement that this new entry in Paramount’s “Cloverfield” sci-fi series was suddenly available, telling viewers it would be available for them to see as soon as NBC’s broadcast was over.
Why: This spot heralded the true advent of streaming-video players in the world of entertainment marketing (HBO and Amazon also ran trailers for “Westworld” and “Jack Ryan,” respectively, as part of the 2018 Super Bowl ad roster). Netflix used the ad to brazenly, essentially telling hundreds of millions of people to stop watching NBC as soon as convenient.
Volkswagen, “The Force” (2011)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLV
What: A young boy dressed as Darth Vader from “Star Wars” attempts to harness the Force to make things happen, like waking up a dog. Of course, he really has no powers. So imagine his surprise when he discovers he can start a Volkswagen Passat (it turns out his father was using a remote control).
Why: Volkswagen became the first advertiser to truly harness social media to wring more value from its Super Bowl efforts. The automaker put a 60-second version of the commercial on YouTube the week before it was supposed to debut in the Super Bowl, and generated millions of views and viral chatter, whetting consumers’ appetites to see it when it finally ran in the game in 30-second form. For a while, the practice of releasing Super Bowl ads early via social media became the norm for nearly every marketer with a spot in the game.In recent years, however, most have throttled back on that strategy, eager to save a surprise for Sunday viewers.
Apple, “1984” (1984)
Appeared in: Super Bowl XVII
What: An athlete, chased by troopers, bursts into a room of cowed citizens staring dumbstruck at a Orwellian scene: A bloviating orator talking via a big screen about the importance of maintaining unified thought and vision. The intruder hurls a sledgehammer into the air to stop the indoctrination and wake up the crowd.
Why: Apple was trying to take a poke at then-dominant IBM and draw attention to its upstart Macintosh computer, but in putting this seminal ad on the air (and never running it in full since), the marketer tried to make us think rather than make us chuckle before moving on to the next thing. If only more Super Bowl ads could do the same.
Doritos, “Crash the Super Bowl” (2007 to 2016)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLI to Super Bowl 50
What: Amateurs contributed oddball homilies to the sometimes cheesy, sometimes spicy chip made by PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay snack unit as part of a real contest for cash and recognition. Over the years, entries have depicted 22-year-old winner Kina Grannis singing her composition “Message to Your Heart” and a pug crashing through a sliding glass door to get to a bag of the snack. Many of the ads score very high the next day in USA Today’s Super Bowl “Ad Meter,” a ranking that has a lot of clout among marketing executives.
Why: One might argue that Doritos’ success over the years has turned the Super Bowl into a never-ending series of viral videos with low production values. Yet the lesson is obvious: You don’t need special effects and highly paid creative executives to design a winning commercial, particularly in an era when grainy, streaming video has proven to win the eyeballs of a consumer base more accustomed to such stuff on YouTube.
Chrysler, “Imported From Detroit” (2011)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLV
What: This ad lasted a mammoth two minutes – an eternity in the world of television advertising. With the Eminem song “Lose Yourself” thumping in the background, a Chrysler 200 moves through the streets of Detroit (“What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?”) and proclaimed the return of the U.S. auto industry from recession. Chrysler repeated the formula a few times more, running extra-long ads featuring Clint Eastwood and Bob Dylan in subsequent Super Bowls.
Why: By insisting upon a non-traditional ad length that cost four times as much as the typical Super Bowl (and forcing broadcaster Fox to rearrange the game’s advertising lineup), Chrysler seized upon the national mood at the time and demonstrated that anyone with a new idea and a lot of cash can change even TV’s mightiest institution.
GoDaddy, “Proceedings,” (2005) and Cash4Gold (2009)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XXXIX (Go Daddy) and Super Bowl XLIII (Cash4Gold)
What: GoDaddy set tongues wagging with an impertinent commercial showing a model testifying before what looked to be a congressional committee about her desire to be in an ad. Her attire was suspect from the beginning – a tank top. Within seconds of the ad’s start, viewers saw a wardrobe malfunction, and the woman, attempting to collect herself, explained what GoDaddy was to a startled assemblage.
Cash4Gold, meanwhile, trotted out former “Tonight Show” sidekick Ed McMahon (“Heeeere’s money!” he said as the spot opens) and onetime rapper MC Hammer to urge viewers to turn in their jewelry for quick dollars – a message that may have struck a chord with thousands of people affected by the economic recession plaguing the United States at the time.
Why: Once upon a time, the Super Bowl was a place for blue-chip marketers. Since the dot-com boom, however, flashy upstarts and hard-nosed entrepreneurs have been eager to use the event to fuel awareness, and the networks just can’t resist – even if it means opening the ranks of the gridiron classic to a marketer more commonly associated with direct-response TV ads. GoDaddy would go on to become one of the longest-running sponsors of the Super Bowl, while Cash4Gold has (so far) never been seen in the event again.
Chevrolet, “Blackout,” (2015) and Tide, “Bradshaw Stain” (2017)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLIX (Chevrolet) and Super Bowl LI (Tide)
What: In 2015, Chevrolet made a stunning appearance just before the kickoff of Super Bowl XLIX that made it look as if NBC’s feed of the game had been disrupted by some sort of technological glitch. In reality, the commercial just went dark for seven seconds (after an announcer at a football game started talking about ‘Super Bowl 49’). Procter & Gamble in 2017 scored with an ad that put a stain on announcer Terry Bradshaw’s shirt during the Fox Sports broadcast, then showed him working frantically to remove it using Tide.
Why: As the advent of digital media has made a new generation of viewers increasingly comfortable with skipping past ads (or watching fewer of them in real time), advertisers have pressed aggressively for new ways to tie their pitches more directly to the programs. In recent years, they have succeeded.
Coca-Cola, “It’s Beautiful” (2014)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLVIII
What: Children sing “America the Beautiful”in seven different languages: English, Spanish. Keres, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese, French and Hebrew. “The ad provides a snapshot of the real lives of Americans representing diverse ethnicities, religions, races and families,” Coca-Cola explained upon the commercial’s release, “all found in the United States.”
Why: The “Beautiful” ad was one of the earliest examples in a growing push by some of America’s biggest and most influential advertisers recognizing their customers hail from a more diverse population than the one consuming their goods in say, 1955. Others sparked the trend as well – one ad that aired in the 2014 game for Cheerios depicted an interracial marriage. Both concepts drew hateful comments, but pointed to a larger truth: Advertisers need to appeal to all potential customers, not just those who have historically enjoyed a premium position. Since that time, the Super Bowl ad roster has been filled in part by sponsors eager to shed a light on social issues. And Coke would run the ad again during pre-game coverage of Super Bowl LI.
Just For Feet, “Kenya” (1999)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XXXIII
What: A group of white men in a Humvee track a Kenyan runner and offer him water spiked with a sedative. After he passes out, the men put Nike shoes on his feet. After waking up, the runner is so upset he screams as he tries to shake the shoes off. The Just For Feet ad was accused of being racist, and the retailer later sued its ad agency (and subsequently dropped the charges.) Just For Feet would go into bankruptcy protection just a few months later.
Why: The lesson from this ad – the Super Bowl, which brings in the broadest swath of U.S. TV viewers, is no place to run content that has the potential to offend – is still relevant. Sadly, some advertisers have not taken this to heart. In 2007, a Snickers ad showing two male mechanics kissing angered gay rights groups. In 2008, two ads from SalesGenie depicting cartoon caricatures of Chinese-speaking pandas and an Indian salesman drew outrage. And in 2011, an ad from Groupon was charged with making light of the woes of Tibetan refugees.
CBS, “David Letterman and Surprise Guest Stars” (2007, 2010)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLI, Super Bowl XLV
What: The irascible Letterman, never known for his eagerness to take part in promotional stunts devised by others, got Oprah Winfrey to appear with him in a 2007 CBS Super Bowl promo. Winfrey had been the target of an odd, poorly received joke Letterman made when he hosted the 1995 Oscars broadcast. Three years later, Letterman topped himself, and really raised eyebrows: He persuaded rival Jay Leno, then under scrutiny for returning to his “Tonight Show” perch after NBC had an acrimonious split with then-host Conan O’Brien, to join the fun along with Winfrey.
Why: TV-network promos are old-school affairs, offering a peek at a coming program while telling viewers about the time and date of air. Letterman’s clever executions raised the bar, however, and Fox and NBC have followed his example in the years that have followed. CBS for years faced raised expectations that Letterman might take part once again (he did so in 2013). After taking a query from a reporter at a Super Bowl publicity event about Letterman’s intent for the coming game that year, then-CBS CEO Leslie Moonves acknowledged that anything involving the late-night comic was “a tall order.”